Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Humanity of Jazz

In the speech he gave before the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington in August 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., employed the refrain, “Now is the time.”  Was he inspired by Charlie Parker’s, “Now’s the Time,” the original blues that Bird recorded on his Savoy Jazz debut in 1945?  As evidenced by his introductory remarks for the Berlin Jazz Festival the following year, King had a profound appreciation of jazz.


(Mahalia Jackson, wearing corsage, looks over at MLK speaking at the March on Washington.)

In September 1964, as the guest of Mayor Willy Brandt, King spent two days in (West) Berlin.  During the whirlwind visit, he gave a sermon to a crowd of 20,000, visited the Berlin Wall, and attended a memorial concert for President Kennedy.  It’s also long been reported that he gave the keynote address to the inaugural Berlin Jazz Festival, but in recent years that’s been disputed by Bruce Jackson and Professor David Demsey of William Patterson University.  Whether spoken or merely written for the festival’s program, King offers genuine insight about the role that jazz musicians played as they “championed” the search for identity among African Americans. “Long before the modern essayists and scholars wrote of ‘racial identity’ as a problem for a multi-racial world, musicians were returning to their roots to affirm that which was stirring within their souls,” King wrote.  (Read the complete text below.)

Duke Ellington composed “King Fit the Battle of Alabam,” for his 1963 musical, My People.  It was staged in Chicago for the Century of Negro Progress Exhibition celebrating the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation.  Alas, it never got to Broadway, but some of the music was later incorporated into the Sacred Concerts.  “King Fit the Battle…” celebrates MLK, lunch counter sit-ins, freedom riders, and satirizes the notorious Birmingham, Alabama Sheriff Bull Connors.  While he was in Chicago, Ellington met Dr. King in a meeting that was arranged by Marian Logan, wife of Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s friend and physician, Dr. Arthur Logan.

One senses that Dr. King would have understood what Stanley Crouch meant in his 2009 Daily News column lamenting the absence of jazz in the public rituals of the Obama administration.  “Jazz predicted the civil rights movement more than any other art in America…Jazz was always an art, but because of the race of its creators, it was always more than music. Once the whites who played it and the listeners who loved it began to balk at the limitations imposed by segregation, jazz became a futuristic social force in which one was finally judged purely on the basis of one’s individual ability.” Or, as King famously put it, “Judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Speaking of Birmingham, here’s the John Coltrane Quartet playing “Alabama” on Ralph J. Gleason’s public television series, Jazz Casual.  Coltrane composed the elegy in commemoration of the four girls murdered in the fire-bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham on September 15, 1963.  Trane first recorded the piece on November 18; this was taped on December 7.)


Humanity and the Importance of Jazz

“God has brought many things out of oppression. He has endowed his
creatures with the capacity to create – and from this capacity has
flowed the sweet songs of sorrow and joy that have allowed man to cope
with his environment and many different situations.

“Jazz speaks for life. The Blues tell the story of life’s difficulties,
and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the
hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with
some new hope or sense of triumph. This is triumphant music.

“Modern Jazz has continued in this tradition, singing the songs of a more
complicated urban existence. When life itself offers no order and
meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of
the earth which flow through his instrument.

“It is no wonder that so much of the search for identity among American
Negroes was championed by Jazz musicians. Long before the modern
essayists and scholars wrote of “racial identity” as a problem for a
multi-racial world, musicians were returning to their roots to affirm
that which was stirring within their souls.

“Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come
from this music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when
courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when
spirits were down. And now, Jazz is exported to the world. For in the
particular struggle of the Negro in America there is something akin to
the universal struggle of modern man. Everybody has the Blues. Everybody
longs for meaning. Everybody needs to love and be loved. Everybody needs
to clap hands and be happy. Everybody longs for faith. In music,
especially this broad category called Jazz, there is a stepping stone
towards all of these.”



  1. Bruce Newman says

    For those interested in following this up check out the books of Albert Murray, particularly Stomping the Blues. He’s the only writer I know of who made it his business to develop the blues idiom.

    • Tom Reney says

      Thanks, Bruce. I was a devoted reader of Murray’s work, particularly The Omni-Americans, and the delightful letters he exchanged with Ralph Ellison. By “develop the blues idiom,” should I assume you mean as a literary idiom, or as an entire cultural mode of expression?

  2. Anonymous says

    Great post. There’s a year’s worth of inspiration here. When King resided in Boston, he spent a year living on the same block as Wally’s, the Savoy, and the Hi-Hat. I’ve often wondered if he was a regular. Thanks for posting — Dick Vacca

  3. Anonymous says

    The video of Contrane playing Alabama is beautiful. As one who participated in the southern civil rights movement, in Albany, GA in the summer of 1963, the integral relationship between the struggle for equal rights for African- Americans and jazz are  connected.Pete Titelman 

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